CHICAGO — I didn’t even know the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago existed until a few weeks ago, much less that it has a regular schedule of exhibitions. I certainly didn’t expect the current show, called Body of Work, to be one of the best things I’ve seen as part of Chicago Artists’ Month 2011.
Rebecca Keller, who organized the show and is one of the exhibiting artists, told me while touring the galleries on a bright fall afternoon that the idea for the show grew out of her own interest in the history of institutions. “They accumulate all these layers, which constantly get partially erased and overwritten, but which remain visible, like palimpsests. I’m interested in peeling back these layers and revealing all those levels of personal and cultural history,” she said.
So eleven artists, including Keller, have created sculpture, video, animation and word pieces, that are either inspired by the permanent exhibits in the museum, or that re-use or re-shape material from the museum’s collections and archives.
Keller took a hall filled with heroic looking statues of medical pioneers and draped them with objects that she has fashioned to their particular biography. Kristin Ginger created a piece that could be a mini-apothecary or an oversize doctor’s box, which dispenses prescriptions in the form of poetry quotations, rolled up and squeezed into tiny vials, which passersby are encouraged to take (mine had a few lines from Walt Whitman and an order to write something about something from a set of things, if you follow me).
In a room containing information about a Japanese surgeon who invented the first operable anesthesia in 1804, Briana Schweizer installed a gumball machine that dispenses the recipe for the drug inside a gelatin capsule. Erin Obradovich made sound pieces out of recordings from the museum’s archives and ambient noises from trauma wards and EKG machines.
I’m often somewhat skeptical of exhibitions that “investigate the structure of the institution,” as they so often seem either to say uninteresting things about that very subject or they become annoying, like putting sound installations inside the bathrooms (let me pee in peace, for god’s sake!). This is not the case with Body of Work. While some of the art cannot compete for sheer coolness/ghastliness with some of the permanent exhibits (Siamese twin fetuses!), enough of this show raised serious and fascinating questions about the history of medical therapies, particularly about the personal nature of pain, disease and treatment.
This was particularly evident on the day I went. Amongst the people on the tour were at least one surgeon and some other medical personnel. The conversation may have started with the institution, and the history of medical science, but it always came back to a much more specific theme: the individual’s experience of illness, hospitals, doctors and treatments. If this isn’t a universal and fundamental material for art, I don’t know what is.
It’s certainly something noticed by museum curator Lindsey Thieman. “Sometimes people would visit the museum and say: ‘Oh this is just the art,’ before going off to the other galleries. But people who visit this show talk all the time about their personal experiences of medicine. It’s really brought the building alive,” she said.
The piece that expressed these themes most effectively, to me, was a short video piece by Elise Goldstein and Meredith Zielke. They found in the archives a sketch for a traction device, which looked just as painful to use as the complaint it was supposed to be treating. They built the device, which looks like something that might have been used by stevedores to hoist livestock out of ships, and then one of the artists was filmed suspended in it.
We see her from behind, supported under her armpits by stirrups attached to a frame, her toes only just touching a platform. Over four long minutes, we see various shots of her hanging body, and we hear the creaks of the leather harness, the wooden platform and the sound of her labored breathing as it is forced out of her compressed lungs. It was painful and beautiful to watch, and it provoked me to think of body art, and the authoritarianism of doctors and punishment and healing and the contradictory relationship of pain to healing. A real work of art, in other words.
Body of Work: The Excavating History Collective at the International Museum of Surgical Science (1524 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL) continues until December 31.